Coronavirus lexicon: what do the words mean?

Coronavirus lexicon: what do the words mean?
By: Beth Ireland, Kayla Belec Last Updated: May 7, 2020

UPDATE: In the state of Indiana, Governor Holcomb has begun his reopening plan. We've updated this article to include some of the new terms being used but for more information on the new plan and phases, visit the website:

The coronavirus has affected us all in some way. From self-quarantines and social distancing to school shut-downs and temporary business closures, we’re all working hard to keep each other safe and healthy. With that has come a new common set of words surrounding this crisis. What do they all mean? We consulted a few trusted resources to give you this overview and remind everyone to please stay educated, healthy, and safe with factual information from the CDC and your Indiana State Health Department.

What is COVID-19 and why is it so unique?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus that was first identified during an investigation into an outbreak in Wuhan, China."

There are several different coronaviruses already around, like SARS. The COVID-19 virus, however, is a novel virus as it has never been seen before in humans, meaning we do not have the antibodies built up to defend our bodies against it. This is why it is spreading widely and quickly, creating a pandemic.

What is social distancing and why do we need it to flatten the curve?

There’s been a lot of talk about “flattening the curve” and why that’s important. To stop a huge spike of people being infected with the COVID-19 virus, which would overwhelm hospitals and medical centers, we can slow the rate of infection through social distancing practices like self-quarantine.

** Update** Many states, including Indiana, have moved to shelter-in-place or stay at home orders in order to keep residents from contracting and spreading the COVID-19 virus.

The best way to illustrate how crucial it is to flatten the curve is to see a visual. Here is a graphic that visualizes the impact social distancing practices can have on slowing down the sudden increase of infections.

Flattening the curve

Who are the people at greatest risk?

Although symptoms of COVID-19 have been compared to flu-like symptoms, this virus represents a life-threatening risk to many, including the elderly and those who have existing illnesses or are immunocompromised. Because there is no vaccine to counter COVID-19, a number of people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk when it comes to catching the virus.

High-risk individuals include:

  • Elderly people
  • People with cardiovascular disease
  • People with diabetes
  • People with lung disease
  • People with chronic respiratory disease
  • People battling cancer
  • People with hypertension
  • Anyone who is immunocompromised, has an immune deficiency or has a weakened immune system due to a previous or current illness, treatment, or medical history

Remember, though—disease can make anyone sick, regardless of age, race, or ethnicity.

How can we help those at risk and stop the spread?

The best way to avoid spreading this disease to those who are most threatened by it is to be diligent in practicing social distancing and sanitation. Here’s a run-down of the most applicable practices.

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, frequently. Wash them after using the bathroom; before and after preparing food; after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose; after being on your cell phone. Helpful tip: sing or recite your ABCs while washing to ensure you’re hitting 20 seconds (make it a game with kids!).
  • Avoid touching your face. Especially with unwashed hands, steer clear of touching your nose, eyes, and mouth.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with tissues. Throw the tissues away.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently
  • Wear a mask. It's important to wear a mask hen going out in public or in an environment where you may come in close contact with another person, especially those who are at high risk.
  • Social Distance. When going out, stay six feet away from others to avoid the spread of the virus.

STAY HOME. Social distance. Self-quarantine. Stay out of contact with people as much as possible, and try to give the people you’re sharing space with a 6-foot berth.

Coronavirus Lexicon

Here’s a quick look at all the words surrounding the COVID-19 that have become regular in conversations.

  • Coronavirus: Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).
  • Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a new strain discovered in 2019 and has not been previously identified in humans. 
  • Pandemic: A disease epidemic that has spread across a wide region, such as a country or the world. In the case of COVID-19, this pandemic is worldwide.
  • Flatten the curve: This phrase refers to the attempt to slow down the sudden surge of COVID-19 infections that have the potential to overwhelm medical resources. This is best depicted in a visual representation.
  • Social distancing: Keeping six feet away from others while in a public setting to reduce the spread of contagious disease.
  • Quarantine: A period or place of isolation in which people (or animals) who might have been exposed to an infectious disease are placed to prevent the disease’s spread. Many who have been exposed or diagnosed to COVID-19 are in quarantine.
  • Self-quarantine: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, many individuals are practicing self-quarantine as a form of social distancing, refraining from interactions with others and remaining in their homes to avoid the disease’s spread.
  • Immunocompromised: We’ve heard this word a lot in the last few weeks to describe those who have compromised immune systems and are at greater risk when contracting COVID-19.
  • N-95 respirator mask: This is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a close facial fit and most efficient filtration of airborne particles. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are experiencing a shortage in these right now. U.S. laws are being enforced to respond to this problem; in the meantime, here’s how crafty people can help:
  • Shelter-in-place (Stay at home ): A government-mandated order to stay at home and only leave for essential needs like medicine, groceries, or essential workers going to work.
  • Lockdown/Shutdown: A lockdown is very similar to shelter-in-place orders but may come with stricter regulations for citizens, such as curfews or fines/arrests. Citizens may still leave their homes for essential needs. Regulations will vary depending on state and local governments. Governor Eric Holcomb lists Indiana state regulations here:
  • PPE: Personal Protective Equipment used, mainly in the medical field, to protect healthcare workers or those who are working directly with the public at this time. These include masks, gloves, face shields, goggles, aprons, and gowns.
  • Ventilator: A machine used to move air in and out of a patient's lungs. It is used on those who cannot breathe on their own or have severe difficulty breathing.
  • Non-medical masks: Face coverings made from cloth that a person can wear in areas where social distancing is more difficult, like grocery stores, to help protect from contracting or spreading coronavirus. These can be made from old t-shirts or scarves and are an excellent way to stay protected without using resources needed for healthcare workers and essential workers. The Center for Disease Control shows you how to make your own masks here:
  • Asymptomatic: A person who is carrying the coronavirus but has no visible physical symptoms. Though not sick themselves, they can still spread the virus to others, which is why it is important to adhere to stay-at-home orders as well as following the CDC's guidelines on handwashing, not touching your face, remaining six feet apart from others, and wearing a face-covering when out in the public.
  • Symptomatic: Someone who is showing symptoms of the COVID-19 virus such as high fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. People displaying symptoms of COVID-19 should contact their health care professional and avoid public places. If the symptoms worsen, seek immediate medical help.
  • Reopen: Many states have put plans into effect to allow business and public places to open up again while adhering to strict guidelines on how to keep people distanced and safe.
  • Indiana Back on Track: Indiana state's plan to reopen the state over several phases. More information can be found here:

Some of the positive things happening right now

There are some good things happening locally while we wait.

Locally, many people are stepping up to help one another:

Here’s how some of our local organizations are responding:


The best place for accurate information about the virus is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

You may also find valuable local and state information at the Indiana State Department of Health, where you can also subscribe to a newsletter that will send you electronic updates.

For more information from your local trusted hospitals, visit: